Apparently, the CCLU forgot the Inquisition is over
By Les Chappell
The Lesser of Two Equals
June 17, 2009
(I had been planning to write my column for this week on as a musing on just how much blame we as a consumer base are to blame for the closing of independent bookstores, but a link on Neil Gaiman’s website has pushed me into diatribe central today.)
While I no longer live in Wisconsin, having relocated to the greener valley of Portland almost a year ago, I retain a fondness for the state in which I spent the last 12 years of my life and where so many family and friends of mine still reside. As such, I like to keep an eye on how things are going in the state, both to remain up to date on issues I followed before leaving and because I am eagerly awaiting the weeping and gnashing of teeth should Brett Favre make his way to the Vikings.
Usually I enjoy the news that comes out of the state – and occasionally find a moment that pleases my bookish instincts – but this recent article from the Guardian (in the United Kingdom of all places) has been able to rouse a rare anger in me. In the proud tradition of Wisconsin’s housing political extremes on both poles (this is the state that brought us Robert LaFollette and Joseph McCarthy, lest we forget), we now see there are still parts of the state willing to go against the written word and channel the spirit of Tomás de Torquemada.
As the Guardian reported, the lawsuit has been brought by the Christian Civil Liberties Union on behalf of elderly West Bend citizens against Francesca Lia Block’s “Baby Be-Bop”, a young adult novel that focuses on its protagonist Dirk’s struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality. The book was depicted as part of a display in the West Bend Community Memorial Library, and apparently its appearance caused great trauma to the “mental and emotional well-being” of the plaintiffs by containing racial slurs toward gays and African-Americans.
Now this sort of argument is nothing new to the world of literature – books from “Huckleberry Finn” to “Naked Lunch” have been attacked on the grounds of obscene or insulting language. Even in West Bend it’s a familiar story, as some residents recently lost a campaign to restrict young adult titles of this nature. The key point here is what the plaintiffs are seeking: $120,000 in compensatory damages for being exposed to the title and the right to publicly burn the book for being a hate crime, “explicitly vulgar, racial [sic], and anti-Christian.”
I will repeat that: they want to publicly burn the book.
Now, I haven’t read it myself so I can’t comment on how offensive the content is, and in the interest of tolerance I will recuse myself from any religious judgment. What I will not excuse myself from is my anger at this ignorant assault on the concept of a library.
To me, a library by definition exists as a place that holds all books and offers their use in a neutral context, letting its visitors and members sift and winnow through the information at their own pace. The word “public” is put before the word library for a reason, in that anyone who goes there should expect full and unfettered access to its contents. Censoring what content is held in a library beyond exercising reasonable control (i.e. making sure erotica isn’t shelved alongside Louis Sachar) is only a few steps away from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in my perspective.
Anyone who tries to remove titles from a library based on their own moral objections is implicitly stating that they consider their opinion above any other person’s ability to interpret the book, and that their negative reactions outweigh any potential positive someone else might find in the title – an attitude that implies an arrogant disregard for others thoughts. The argument is made that removing these titles creates an safer atmosphere for children, but I counter that removing these titles is a much more detrimental move. Censoring what children read is a job for the parents, not some authority figure who judges a book based on a few words.
This doesn’t even consider the logical paradox being demonstrated here, which has made blood pour slowly from my ears as I try to comprehend it. A large part of the group’s argument is based on the fact that the book (and I am quoting a legal document here) “constitutes a hate crime,” the words in the book “permeate violence” and that it “degrades the community.” And so to preserve the community, they want to hold a public ceremony condemning this work and destroy it in a gesture that evokes memories of Nazi Germany. There are irony flares going up in all directions.
Now, given the dismissal of the earlier attempts to “clean up” the library and the track record in this country for assaulting titles, I doubt “Baby Be-Bop” will be seeing an inferno anytime soon. But this still holds up as a cautionary tale: people who value their libraries need to keep an eye on them in case of the people who don’t.
Les Chappell encourages all of you to mail copies of “Tropic of Cancer” to Ginny and Jim Maziarka, who pushed for the earlier ban at the West Bend Community Memorial Library. If you don’t share his pettiness, then send your support to the West Bend library board for doing the right thing.